Storytelling is the tie that binds us all. Whether it’s on Broadway, film, the television screen or Spotify, a well told story can connect people from different backgrounds, expose us to different cultures, and shed light on tragedies, injustices, and little known triumphs. Not many actors have harnessed this power quite like Leslie Odom Jr. Since his introduction to audiences as Aaron Burr in the smash-hit musical Hamilton, Odom has captivated audiences with his versatility. He showed outstanding depth playing Sam Cooke in One Night In Miami, and nabbed his first Oscar nomination. Now he’s helping aspiring filmmakers of color harness their dreams.
Odom took some time out of his busy production schedule to chat with EBONY about his short film series, diversity in storytelling, and his latest projects.
EBONY: Leslie, tell us a bit about your new short film series. You’re working with Wells Fargo to celebrate the stories of small businesses surviving the pandemic, connecting others to help, and tapping some rising stars in film to do it.
Leslie Odom Jr.: They couldn’t have known I would have a personal connection. The very first film I watched was this film about the Gibson School of Music, which was a school in Philadelphia that tons of my friends had attended to learn how to play piano and the flute. I went to church right down the street from Gibson in Germantown. So I knew the Gibson school very well; it’s a Black owned business. And to see these two business owners, people who I know from firsthand experience, have done formidable work in the community for decades, looking at the camera, giving their first-hand account of how money from the ‘Open For Business Fund’ help them stay alive in an unprecedented time was enough. It’s just letting people know that we are here, please send us an application, apply for this money, it is available to you if you want it or need it. And that is in many ways what the Well Fargo ‘Open For Business Fund’ is.
The unique thing about this is you’ve got diverse up-and-coming filmmakers working on this, and I think it addresses a major need for more representation behind the camera.
That’s important! The power of these stories is that it can make you feel less alone. We’re not meant to be alone. We’re community. We’re pack animals, where we’re meant to live in community. That’s one of the things that we can do as storytellers. It’s a weird thing that happens because the more specific, the more honest you are about a personal story or a personal hardship that you live through, you reach more people and you touch more people than if you try to keep it general and try to keep it about everybody. We know how to find ourselves in one another’s story, how to find what to relate to. We’re stronger when we feel less alone. That’s the power of diverse stories.
You just got your first Emmy nomination for the Disney+ production of Hamilton. I’m curious if there was any difference taking that big Broadway musical from the stage to the screen.
It was a wonderful opportunity that they were giving us. I couldn’t have known. We shot that thing years ago. And I knew that this will get some more people, but I didn’t know really the power of television, you know? It went right to the streamer, but it was supposed to go to the big screen. And I mean, millions and millions of people have seen that thing at this point. I mean, more people watched Hamilton on Disney+ in the first weekend than saw my entire run on Broadway. I did 500 shows in Edinburgh, and more people saw that streaming performance in a weekend than saw all 500 of those shows. So, that’s the power of TV. You can just beam into people’s living rooms. And if you have something powerful to say, like I believe Hamilton does, then it’s gasoline to fire you.
You’ve got the Grammy and Tony award wins, you just got your Emmy nomination and an Oscar nomination. The ‘EGOT’ is building. Is that a goal for you, to be in that same exclusive club with Whoopi Goldberg and John Legend?
I got the G and T. Maybe the E-O will come. I have time. I wouldn’t mind joining that fraternity. There are a lot of people that I respect in that frat. Most recently, Mr. Legend. You mentioned the genius that is Whoopi Goldberg. So, of course, that would be wonderful. But I have to tell you, in all honesty, man, I have already achieved more than I ever intended to as a kid. Bro, I didn’t see any of this for myself. So I have to give respect to that too. I had a dream as a child and I achieved that thing. So, all this is great. I’m happy to have two beautiful kids, a wonderful wife and partner, some friends I get to work with, and do this thing that I’ve loved since I was a kid. Like, listen, I’ll take the E-O, but I am happy right where I am too.”
You’re a man of many talents. Do you have any talents people may not know about?
I can cook! My signature dish is probably, believe it or not, an orange chicken that I perfected. I got better at it with practice in the pandemic. My in-laws have an orange tree, and I go pick the oranges right off their tree, and it’s a reduction that you make from oranges and soy sauce and ginger. It’s a simple recipe, there’s white rice, wine and vinegar. That’s probably the thing that makes my wife the happiest when I make that.
You had me at reduction!
Yeah, cooking cooking! I’m not ready for Thanksgiving dinner yet, but I made Christmas dinner last year. I think I think that I’m going to keep that tradition going. I made my mom’s macaroni and cheese for the first time. So yeah, I can cook.
Speaking of Christmas, The Christmas Album was great. What’s next for you on the music scene?
We’re going to tour that Christmas album. We’re going to go knock on everything. If everything stays trending in the right direction, venues will stay open. We’re going to travel around the country. I think I’m doing something like 20 to 23 shows on the East Coast and in the middle of the country.
New music coming anytime soon?
Yeah, I’m ready. I’m ready to record again. I’ve been focused on the movie thing and the film thing for a minute. I’m in Europe right now. We’re going to have a lot of fun actually working on Knives Out 2. Movies kind of took my focus for a little bit, but I’m itching to get back in the studio.
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